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During the first meeting of the Augustine panel, a committee charged with reviewing the future of U.S. human spaceflight, on Wednesday, members heard several private companies argue that their launch vehicles would be cheaper and more reliable than the Ares rockets currently being developed by NASA to succeed the aging space shuttles. The Ares are part of the Constellation program which outlines plans to send humans back to the moon by 2020, and then to Mars and beyond.

The committee’s report isn’t due until the end of August, but Norm Augustine, the committee chairman, has already said that some commercial launch efforts appear further along than he previously thought. Of the issues brought forth, Augustine said that the availability of commercial rockets as an alternative to launch Orion and the concept of reusing the space shuttle launch system, were the most interesting.

The committee heard from United Space Alliance, which says it could use an existing Delta rocket to launch the Orion crew capsule into space sooner and cheaper than the Ares I rocket, which is first scheduled to launch in 2015. The Aerospace Corporation added that it could use a modified Delta IV Heavy rocket to save between $3 billion and $6 billion. (Aviation Week has a report about a new study that suggests various advantages of using the Delta IV over the Ares I–although the report has not been released.)

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences also offered their services for taking cargo and humans to the International Space Station, not only to fill the gap between when the shuttles retire and the next launch vehicle is ready for flight, but to service the station afterwards to save money. Both companies already have a contract with NASA through the COTS program for cargo flights to the station.

Lastly, a company called Direct proposed using space shuttle parts to build a new launch vehicle, claiming that the components will already be tested, and it will be cheaper and faster to build.

While the panel did not hear from Ares program managers, I was able to speak with many of them while reporting on the Ares I-X test-flight rocket, which will launch in August. (The article will appear in the July/August print issue, and publish online June 23.) When asked about being overbudget and behind schedule, Jon Cowart, deputy project manager said, “if Congress wants to give us more money so we can accelerate the development, we would love to do it, but right now we are in a go-as-you-pay situation.”

The recommendations of the Augustine panel are critical to the future of U.S. human spaceflight, and decisions on NASA’s budget are on hold until the panel concludes. Despite the uncertainty, Steve Cook, NASA Ares project manager at Goddard Space Flight Center, remains enthusiastic about the future.”This is an exciting time, and we have a team that is motivated to build the exploration launch system to move us beyond low earth orbit,” he says. Follow and take part in panel discussions. Next topic: What role should international partners play in future U.S. spaceflight plans, and why?

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Tagged: Communications, NASA, space, SpaceX, Augustine Panel, spaceflight, Ares

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